I’m always looking for fresh ways to explore places, especially those I’ve been to before. This week I was visiting Las Vegas for the fourth time, and I I love Las Vegas – the energy, the food, the entertainment, and the sheer ridiculousness of it all can be intoxicating. After all, this was the view from our room at Planet Hollywood (Angela was very patient with me as I blacked the room out to get this shot):
Why would you ever want to leave? We had a soaker tub where we could see the Bellagio fountain show 46 times a night. We were mid-Strip, in the middle of the action. And yet…no matter how perfect our Vegas experience, I always feel like some time off-Strip is time well spent. On this trip I really wanted to branch out beyond Las Vegas Boulevard and see what southern Nevada had to offer.
Scanning Viator’s tour listings before my trip I came across the Area 51 Day Tour (click for full tour description on Viator’s site). The description sounded like something right up my alley – a unique outdoors experience, dry lakebeds, mutant Joshua trees, great scenery, Area 51, and hanging out at the famous Little A’Le’Inn. Oh, yeah, and maybe – possibly – spot a UFO. 😉 I love Viator (read about my Viator trip in Chiang Mai, Thailand to the Golden Triangle here), and Angela was keen, so we happily signed on.
On tour day our guide Kevan picked us up at seven a.m. in a luxury SUV made for off-roading. The truck is a necessity, he explained, as “a regular tour bus would never make it.”
After picking up a pair of very nice folks from Winnipeg at the Flamingo, we were off, a truck full of happy UFO hunting Canadians. Before leaving the city we stopped at McCarran International Airport for a look at Janet Airlines. Janet is the clandestine air service used to ferry employees from Las Vegas to Area 51 and surrounding areas. Kevan had to keep driving as we pulled up to the employee parking lot. The tour used to stop on the sidewalk and let people walk around but they were threatened with arrest and fines, so we were quite happy to stay in the rolling SUV.
Security is tight even amongst workers – Area 51 staff are forbidden from carpooling, to minimize the possibility they’ll talk shop and figure out what each other is doing.
No one knows for sure what “Janet” stands for, but according to Kevan the prevailing guess is “Joint Air Network for Employee Transportation”. The jets are white with a red stripe down the side, and no other markings. I tried to take photos, but it was tough. This was the best I could do:
We enjoyed having the opportunity to check out Janet. It helped set the tone of high security, seclusion, and secrecy, which seemed to be themes for the day.
After leaving McCarran we took off for the I-15 and made our way north, eventually switching to the US-93, where we turned northwest towards the small town of Alamo. The terrain shifted from desert to foothills and small mountains. Along the way we passed Nellis Air Force Base, where we all got a kick out of watching a couple of F-15 fighter jets skim over the top of the mountains and land. Throughout the day we would see more F-15s, F-22s, and other fighter jets.
An hour or so into the trip we turned off the highway onto a gravel road with more twists and turns than the roller coasters at New York, New York. We were thankful for the 4×4, and happily munched on the reasonably priced snacks we’d bought at a nearby gas station while Kevan did the heavy lifting behind the wheel.
Almost immediately after turning off the highway we started seeing Joshua trees. Kevan explained that they’re technically yucca plants (in the lily family), but people refer to them as Joshua trees. I didn’t care what they were called, I thought they were fascinating. Kevan happily pulled over so we could snap a few photos. The sky was magic for pictures, so I was a very happy guy.
Angela really enjoyed the landscape and loudly proclaimed she wanted to move here. We’re city folk, for the most part, so we wouldn’t survive for any more than 45-50 minutes out here on our own, but I loved the peace and tranquility of having the outdoors all to ourselves.
Fifteen miles up the bouncy gravel road we found the Delamar Dry Lake. The Dry Lake is a lakebed that has been used in the past as a landing zone for the Air Force’s X-15 program. Now it serves as a landing strip only in emergency situations, and we enjoyed hearing Kevan tell us about the time he was zipping along the lakebed at sixty miles an hour when he looked up to see a plane about to land on top of him. He made it out unscathed, but it gives you a sense of how hard and smooth the lakebed is. It’s also been said that this is a hotbed for UFO sightings, but sadly we didn’t see any.
Rain had recently fallen, so the lakebed was a bit soft to take the 4×4 out on. It meant we couldn’t zip around it in the SUV, but we did get to walk out on the dry lake, enjoying the scenery. It’s a fantastic spot for landscape photographers. The sky was vivid and dramatic, so I went for the artistic HDR version of the lakebed and surrounding mountains.
The lakebed is fairly smooth, with small cracks running through it. Due to the recent rain we could smell the Earth in the fresh morning air, and it was a place that I would have happily stayed for hours. The consistency of the ground was tacky to the touch, and when I got down on my knees for the sake of getting a photo my jeans were covered in light mud.
We got back in the SUV and made our way back out to the highway and into the town of Alamo for a quick pit stop. Fuelled up, we motored on. Before long we turned west on State Route 375, officially known as the Extraterrestrial Highway.
The sign is replaced every six months or so, due to the abundance of stickers placed there by alien hunters, sticker enthusiasts, and vagabond vandals.
From the sign it took about thirty-five minutes to get to the tiny town (not officially a town) of Rachel, home of the Little A’Le’ Inn. The official census in 2010 put the population at 54, so saying this place is small is an understatement.
Located in the Great Basin desert, nestled between mountain ranges, I found Rachel to have a peaceful and relaxing vibe. A very nice place to stop, but with no stores, entertainment or schools, it would likely be a tough place to live.
The highlight in Rachel, aside from the mountains, is the Little A’Le’ Inn, the bar and motel that serves as a mecca for alien hunters and tourists. The inn was recently featured in the movie Paul, and is Rachel’s one claim to fame.
The famous sign:
Walking around outside you can get a good look at the great art work on the building:
And of course there’s a spaceship with flickering lights:
Some cool ET graffiti:
Inside the bar looks a bit smaller than it does in Paul but it still has quite an interesting vibe with alien paraphernalia scattered throughout. An alien watches out the window to ward off any funny business.
Another is mounted on the wall over the liquor. Here he watches over my shoulder as I lounge at the bar.
We had lunch, the popular A’Le’Inn burger. I added some Alien Al’s Annihalator Hot Sauce, which provided an ‘out of this world’ kick. I appreciated that even the condiments were on theme.
Fed, we had some time to explore. One of the more fascinating things in the building has nothing to do with aliens at all. Taped to the ceiling are thousands of dollar bills. Most of them are American, but bills from all over the world are represented.
This is a tradition that began a number of years ago. Visitors sign them and then tape them up. Our waitress didn’t know when or why the tradition started, so it remains a mystery to us. I felt guilty for hoping for a mild earthquake so that I could stand in the midst of a cash rainstorm.
These little guys remained awfully still as we wandered around, but I could have sworn I saw the one on the left twitch. Strangest thing – there were three of them on the wall when I went into the washroom but when I came out there were only two. I’m not saying one got up and was secretly monitoring us from behind an invisible partition in the ceiling or something. I’m just saying there were three and then there were two.
With alien lore on the brain, we jumped back in the SUV and headed out to Area 51. The scenery continued to amaze.
The further we got off the main road, the fewer signs and markers there were, and it truly felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Along the way we stopped at the former location of the Black Mailbox, made famous by an X-Files episode. I say “former location” because it was stolen recently and the rancher who owns the land can’t be bothered to replace it. I can’t blame him – the mailbox has been vandalized, knocked over, painted, stickered, and stolen countless times through the years.
Working our way into a Joshua tree forest and climbing into the hills, we made our way along a series of unmarked gravel roads. I would have been lost in minutes; for a military base that doesn’t want to be found they picked an excellent location. Thankfully Kevan knew where he was going, and guided us to the perimeter of Area 51 with ease, pulling up close to the markers. Men in white trucks sat up on the top of a hill and watched us as we got out of the SUV.
Kevan explained that the men in trucks were just part of the surveillance – mics hidden in the hills recorded our sounds, cameras taped us as we moved around, and we could only imagine what else was being done to watch us. This is – literally – one of the most secure locations on the planet.
Of course, being the smartass that I am, I had to take a picture in front of the “No Photography” sign.
Kevan stated this was fine as long as we didn’t cross the barrier to the other side of the sign. So we snapped away, feeling very watched. Angela decided to take a turn, as well:
We wandered around the perimeter, taking in the landscape and wondering what was happening behind the boundary line. Were they hiding aliens? Developing some stealthy new aircraft? Researching space-age weaponry? We would never find out, of course – the secrets of Area 51 are well kept, and anything short of Will Smith popping out of the bushes to explain it to us, we won’t find out for decades until the information is made public.
After snapping some photos and waving at the men in the trucks (they didn’t wave back), we loaded up the SUV and began the two and a half hour ride back to the Las Vegas Strip.
We were dropped back at our hotel, and good-byes were exchanged. Kevan had been an excellent driver and guide. Both Angela and I love to get out in nature, so we really appreciated seeing a side of Nevada that we had never explored before. It also helped us to understand that there is so much more to a Vegas trip than just the Strip. The scenery was truly amazing, an aspect of the trip that I think is undersold.
Here’s the landscape as we drove back into Vegas – I never tire of how beautiful this great big wide world is:
I also liked that this is the only tour group in the world offering this tour, and they only operate it once a week, making it a fairly exclusive engagement. We didn’t find any UFOs out there, but we did find one of the best day trips I’ve ever taken from Las Vegas.
Disclosure: Viator invited us as guests on this tour. All opinions – as always – are my own.
What about you? Ever been to Area 51 or taken a great day tour that exceeded your expectations? Please comment below!